Injustice in the Knight’s Tale

In “The Ending of ‘Troilus,'” E. Talbot Donaldson writes in response to the conclusion of the “Knight’s Tale,” one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “What it does suggest…is that Providence is not working justly.” Though Donaldson correctly points out the fact that the “Knight’s Tale” ends in injustice, he confuses the role of sin in the injustice with the role of God.

The Knight, an honorable, generous, courteous, and noble member of a party of twenty-nine people on a pilgrimage to the English town of Canterbury during the Middle Ages, tells his tale as part of a storytelling contest the pilgrims’ host holds. The “Knight’s Tale” takes place in Ancient Greece and relates the story of Arcite and Palamon, two cousins who risk their lives to win the love of Emily, Duke Theseus’ beautiful sister-in-law. Originally, Arcite and Palamon come from Thebes, a rival of Athens, but Theseus captures and imprisons them during a war. During their incarceration, the cousins notice Emily. Her beauty causes pain in their hearts, as their detention prevents them from roaming about and getting to know fair Emily. Arcite explains, “The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead” (Coghill 49). The cousins’ obsession with Emily’s beauty, which they incorrectly describe as love, leads the two to go to battle against one another to determine which of them will gain the privilege of marrying this woman who “fairer was of mien/Than is the lily on its stalk of green” (Coghill 47). Though Arcite wins the battle, his horse gets spooked and he falls off and dies, thus transferring the right to marry Emily to Palamon, who lives happily ever after.

Regarding the battle between Arcite and Palamon, Donaldson writes, “He [the knight] appeals…to our sense of justice” when he, through his presentation of the tale, encourages the reader “to choose a favorite for the contest” (Donaldson). Human nature, as Donaldson suggests, seeks to select a side when someone receives unjust treatment. One can see the validity of this statement by examining the enthusiasm with which people discuss what they think the punishment any infamous criminal should receive. People become so distraught over such court cases because they care – they desire to see what they perceive as justice carried forth. Because of this natural desire for justice, readers of the “Knight’s Tale” automatically, often without realizing it, side with one of the characters, hoping to see him win the contest. When he wins, they rejoice because their character obtains what they perceive as justice; when he loses, they undergo disappointment as a result of their character’s reception of injustice.

The Knight’s conclusion to the tale cannot please everyone. Though many readers feel “that justice has operated in an exemplary manner,” when Palamon marries Emily – after all, he did see her first – others become offended when they read that Palamon, not Arcite wins Emily’s hand in marriage (Donaldson). In actuality, neither opinion correctly explains the end of the story, since true justice (from an Athenian perspective) in the tale would leave an ending in which both Arcite and Palamon die. The knight explains how both “were Princes of the Royal Blood” (Coghill 46) of the enemy city Thebes, and Duke Theseus had captured and imprisoned them. They had no right to even receive freedom. From the Theban perspective, on the other hand, the Athenians are the villains of the tale. To a Thebe, justice might include revenge on Athens for its capture of the cousins.

Additionally, Emily prays that she will retain her virginity, explaining, “Set them [Arcite and Palamon] in amity and let them be/At peace, and turn their hearts away from me./Let all their violent loves and hot desires,/their ceaseless torments and consuming fires,/Be quenched, or turned toward another place” (Coghill 81). The fact that Theseus gives Emily’s hand in marriage to Palamon, thus going against Emily’s wishes, implies injustice. Donaldson argues that the tale concludes with an injustice, and rightly so. Each side in the story has a different perspective on fairness and not everyone can get what he desires. Palamon gets Emily, as he wishes, but Emily loses her virginity and Arcite fails to win Emily’s hand in marriage and, instead, ends up dead.

Donaldson’s explanation as to why the characters’ prayers are not answered differs greatly from the knight’s explanation. While Donaldson blames God for the unjust outcome of the tale, the knight explains how the Greek gods Venus (to whom Palamon prays) and Mars (to whom Arcite prays) fight over who will win the battle. Saturn settles their argument reminding them of his superior power. As the wise grandfather of the arguing gods, he vows, “This Palamon, your dedicated knight,/Shall have his lady, as you swore he might” (Coghill 85). In short, the knight attributes the injustice in his tale to the actions and decisions of the Greek gods. As a result, his explanation fits the tale – the people of Ancient Greece created the mythological gods – even though the knight comes from a society dominated by Christianity. As a result of the knight’s origins, Donaldson changes the knight’s description of the involvement of the mythological Greek gods to what some see as an equivalent of the Greek gods – the Christian God. Donaldson’s blaming of God, his suggestion that He acts unjustly in the story, can lead to the question, “Where is God if He allows such injustices to occur?” not only in the “Knight’s Tale,” but also in the world today.

Sin dominates the world today. All humans constantly fall short of perfection, failing to constantly do good. Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Unpleasant occurrences take place all the time. People who have committed no crimes die in terrorist attacks. Over one million unborn babies die every year. People consider all these injustices, evils, and perils present in the world and come to a variety of conclusions. Some explain the phenomenon as a weakness in God’s character – that He cannot prevent such occurrences. Others go so far as to say God actually causes evil. Yet others explain that God has the ability to halt such incidents, but has no concern for the people on the earth. Regardless of the exact explanation for the event, most people question how a loving God could let bad things happen. As a result, they quickly blame God whenever something bad happens, failing to recall God’s other characteristics. God is sovereign; He “causes all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28). Occurrences that come across to many as unjust are all part of God’s plan for the world.

Continuing along the lines of Donaldson’s suggestion that God does not carry out justice, one can assume he, like many others in society, questions why God does not do something about the sin and apparent injustices in the world. If God dealt true justice, He would send all people to Hell for all of eternity as punishment for their sin. But, two thousand years ago, God sent His only begotten Son to earth to die for mankind’s sin. God, the one who defines justice, put the sin of mankind on Jesus so people would not have to pay the price for their sin. Sin still dominates this world today – injustices still occur – not because God ignores the world, but, rather, because He does not force people to accept His plan of payment for their sin. One can compare God’s position to a child who owns a dog. The child has no fun if he tells the dog to roll over and then has to roll the dog over himself. Rather, the child wants to give the command and the dog to obey. Just as the dog does not always obey its master, people do not always obey God, their master, but follow their own sinful desires instead. Injustice comes not as a result of bias or hatred on God’s part, but, rather, it comes from the choices of sinful people.

The world today is no different from the world the knight creates. Though to the reader, a mere human, it appears that God dishes out injustice, His plan for the world takes into consideration the outcome of every situation that will ever occur. Humans cannot know God’s reasons for the way things turn out. People must trust Him to do what’s right. Donaldson’s entire argument revolves around the false expectation that, since God loves the world, nothing bad should happen and He should always deal out justice. Though Donaldson correctly realizes that prayers are not always answered and justice is not always carried forth, he blames the conclusion on God, rather than where it is actually due – on sin in the world.